NEW YORK — For two full sets, Alexander Zverev was confused and listless, his body language as poor as his winner-to-error ratio against Pablo Carreno Busta in the US Open semifinals Friday.
Zverev double-faulted and smacked his left thigh. He put a backhand into the net to cede the opening set and covered his face with both hands. He netted a forehand early in the next set — part of a stretch in which he dropped nine points in a row and 17 of 19 — turned a forlorn face toward his guest box and put his palms up.
When he pushed a backhand long after 1 hour, 25 minutes of play and shook his head, Zverev trailed by two sets, a deficit the 23-year-old German player never had overcome. He never had been to a Grand Slam final, either. Done and done. Zverev constructed quite a comeback, getting his game in gear to beat a fading Carreno Busta 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 and reach the title match at Flushing Meadows.
“I was like, ‘I can’t believe it. I’m playing in the semifinal, where I’m supposed to be the favorite, and I’m down two sets to love and I have no chance. I’m playing that bad,'” Zverev said. “So I knew I had to come up with better tennis, and I knew that I had to be more stable.”
Zverev is the first man to win a US Open semifinal after a 2-0 set deficit since Novak Djokovic did it against Roger Federer in 2011 — and, keeping good company, he’s also the youngest male finalist at any major tournament since Djokovic was 23 in New York in 2010.
Zverev, the No. 5 seed, will play No. 2 Dominic Thiem or No. 3 Daniil Medvedev for the championship Sunday. He is trying to become Germany’s first Grand Slam champion since Boris Becker at the 1996 Australian Open.
The last German player to reach a Grand Slam final was Rainer Schuettler at the 2003 Australian Open, where he lost to Andre Agassi. The last German to reach the US Open final before Zverev was Michael Stich in 1994, where he lost to Agassi.
It had been 16 years since Grand Slam semifinals were held without at least one of Federer, Djokovic or Rafael Nadal involved.
Nadal chose not to try to defend his title in New York because of the coronavirus pandemic; Federer is out for the rest of 2020 after two knee operations; Djokovic’s tournament ended at 6-5 in the first set of his fourth-round match against Carreno Busta when the No. 1 seed and title favorite unintentionally hit a line judge in the throat with a ball after getting broken.
None of the semifinalists own a Grand Slam trophy yet.
Zverev has been considered likely to grab one, given his success at other events and all of the talent in his 6-foot-6 frame.
His first trip to a major semifinal came in January at the Australian Open, where he was eliminated by Thiem.
Now he has gone a step further. It didn’t look like he would in the early going Friday in a mostly silent and empty Arthur Ashe Stadium, where spectators are barred because of the coronavirus pandemic.
A day after a pair of well-played and competitive women’s semifinals — won by Naomi Osaka and Victoria Azarenka, who face each other Saturday for the championship — Carreno Busta vs. Zverev offered little in the way of those characteristics for two sets.
That was primarily Zverev’s fault. He was tentative, willing to stay back and leisurely exchange groundstrokes from the back of the court.
It was an inadvisable strategy against the 20th-seeded Carreno Busta, who might not do much spectacularly but certainly does everything solidly.
It’s not as if Carreno Busta was impeccable. Yes, his forehand was working well, and he wasn’t making many mistakes. But one indication of his own uneven play: Carreno Busta was broken the first time he served for the opening set, and again the first time he served for the next.
But Zverev simply kept missing the mark, even on neutral balls. Half of Carreno Busta’s first 72 points came via unforced errors off Zverev’s racket. Eventually, though, things got more interesting, both because Zverev became a bit more aggressive and because he finally calibrated his shots correctly.
“I had to be more aggressive generally, I think,” Zverev said, “and it turned out well for me.”
After averaging 18 unforced errors over those first two sets, he averaged seven per set over the last three.
And he rode his booming serve to 24 aces. It’s the second time during the US Open he has had 24 aces, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Zverev has hit 18 or more aces in five of his six US Open matches.
Three breaks in a row — two by Zverev — swung the third set his way, and when he broke again to go up 2-1 in the fourth, he shook his right fist as he walked to the sideline.
Before the start of the fifth set, Carreno Busta took a medical timeout and got his back worked on by a strainer, something he did at the same stage of his marathon quarterfinal victory over Denis Shapovalov.
This time, it was Zverev’s surge that continued, undeterred when Carreno Busta twice hit balls right at him during points in the fourth set.
When it ended with one last break of serve, Zverev finally could allow himself a wide smile.
Zverev has dropped six sets on his way to reaching the final. He’s the first man to concede that many sets en route to reaching the US Open final since Agassi dropped seven sets in 2005 before losing to Federer in the final.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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